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Trump Urged to Stop Tweeting about Trump Tower Meeting; Star Witness Rick Gates Testifies in Manafort Trial; Mysterious Deaths of Russian Journalists Raises Questions. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired August 6, 2018 - 17:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Follow me on Facebook and Twitter, @JakeTapper. You can tweet the show, @TheLeadCNN. Our coverage now continues with Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks for watching.

[17:00:06] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Misleading. President Trump is urged to stop tweeting about the Trump Tower meeting with Russians after admitting the purpose was to get information on Hillary Clinton. It comes as CNN learns the president concerned his son may face legal exposure. Why did the president push an effort to mislead about the original intent of the meeting?

Meeting Mueller. The president's legal team preparing to respond soon to Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Will they agree to a presidential interview or wage a legal battle all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court?

Hope returns. Former White House communications director Hope Hicks spotted on Air Force One as the president flew to a weekend rally. Hicks was -- has faced scrutiny over the role in crafting the White House response on that Trump Tower meeting.

And star witness. The prosecution's star witness takes the stand in the trial of former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Will the jury hear what Manafort's longtime deputy, Rick Gates, has already revealed to prosecutors?

I'm Wolf blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news. The government's key witness is now testifying in the trial of the former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. That comes as President Trump is urged to stop tweeting about that 2016 Trump Tower meeting between his top advisers, including Manafort, and several Russians.

A source tells CNN is president has been told his tweets are only giving oxygen to the topic. That followed the president's stunning weekend admission via Twitter that the meeting, indeed, was about getting dirt on Hillary Clinton, which he insists was totally legal.

I'll speak with Congressman David Cicilline of the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committees. And our correspondents and specialists are all standing by with full coverage.

Let's first go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's covering the president in New Jersey right now. Jim, the president is keeping a relatively low profile while he's on his vacation up there, but he's letting his Twitter fingers do the talking.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf. The president is steering clear of the media here in New Jersey today after resurrecting the controversy over his son Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with the meeting with the Russians at Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign.

Now, the president is making it all too clear that meeting was aimed at getting dirt on Hillary Clinton, which is not at all how the Trump team explained it to the American people initially.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Keeping out of the public eye while he's on vacation in New Jersey, President Trump still managed to ignite a firestorm. Where else? But on his smartphone, tweeting about that now-infamous Trump Tower meeting with the Russians in 2016.

Denying that he's worried about his son, Donald Trump Jr., being in legal jeopardy over the matter, the president tweeted over the weekend, "This was a meeting to get information on an opponent. Totally legal and done all the time in politics. And it went nowhere. I did not know about it."

The president's legal team is trying to clean up the mess, privately urging Mr. Trump to stop tweeting and clarifying that the special counsel's office is fully aware of the meeting's purpose.

JAY SEKULOW, ATTORNEY FOR DONALD TRUMP: I think it's very important to point out that, in a situation like this, you have -- over time, facts develop.

ACOSTA: The problem for the president: Trump Jr. initially released a misleading statement to "The New York times" about the meeting, which was also attended by Mr. Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Trump Jr.'s statement said, "We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of the Russian children." No mention that it was about getting Russian dirt on Hillary Clinton.

REP. DEBBIE DINGELL (D), MICHIGAN: You're sending your son, a family member, to talk with a foreign government that is an active enemy, or potential adversary at least, of this country to talk about information that you could use against your opponent? The optics of that are absolutely terrifying and very disturbing.

ACOSTA: The president has previously acknowledged the true purpose of the meeting days after that initial misleading statement was issued by his son. TRUMP: I think from a practical standpoint, most people would have

taken that meeting. It's called opposition research or even research into your opponent.

ACOSTA: Even as the White House was offering conflicting explanations, insisting it was about Russian adoptions.

SEAN SPICER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There was nothing that, as far as we know, that would lead anyone to believe that -- that there was anything except for a discussion about adoption, the Magnitsky Act.

ACOSTA: The president's team also misled the public about whether Mr. Trump was involved in crafting that statement to "The New York Times" for his son.

SEKULOW: I do want to be clear that the president was not involved in the drafting of the statement and did not issue the statement. It came from Donald Trump Jr.

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He certainly didn't dictate but, you know, he -- like I said, he weighed in. Offered suggestion like any father would do.

ACOSTA: Now, Mr. Trump's team concedes he dictated that statement.

SEKULOW: I had bad information at that time. I made a mistake in my statement. I've talked about that before. That happens when you have cases like this.

ACOSTA: A key question that remains: whether the president knew about the meeting's true purpose ahead of time. Trump Jr. has insisted his father didn't know about the meeting.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: Did you tell your father anything about this?

[17:05:04] DONALD TRUMP JR., SON OF DONALD TRUMP: No. It was such a nothing, there was nothing to tell.

ACOSTA: Despite all of those changing stories, the president's top advisers still defend his characterization that the Russia investigation is a hex.

JOHN BOLTON, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: The issue for the president, I think, is the political argument made by his opponents that somehow he conspired with the Russians, and they helped him defeat Hillary Clinton. That's what he thinks is the hoax. That's what I understand it to be.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, as for the worries inside the president's team about his tweeting, there has been ongoing concerns inside Mr. Trump's team of legal advisers for some time now, Wolf. One of the president's past attorneys on the Russia investigation,

you'll recall, Ty Cobb, stepped down, in part, from his position over this concern about the president's tweets on the Russia investigation.

So, Wolf, this is really nothing new. Although one thing that could be new, we're told by our colleague, Dana Bash, Wolf, that the president may have a response from his legal team to the Mueller team about whether or not he'll sit down with the special counsel's office for that very, very interesting interview that they've been seeking for some time now, Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll see if they make a counter effort to Mueller on that proposed interview.

Jim Acosta, thank you very much.

ACOSTA: That's right.

BLITZER: Let's go to our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. He's outside the federal court in Alexandria, Virginia. That's where the star witness takes the stand, taking the stand right now in the trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

So, Jim, we're going to get to that shortly, but first, the president's lawyers are urging him, as you just heard, to stop tweeting about that notorious 2016 Trump Tower meeting. The president often tweets about the Russia investigation.

Why are his advisers so deeply concerned right now about his comments regarding this meeting at Trump Tower the Russians?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, it doesn't appear, Wolf, that it's for any legal reason or issue of principle. It appears our reporting is that they're discouraging him from tweeting, because it gives oxygen to an issue that might not have as much oxygen if the president wasn't drawing as much attention to it as he is with those tweets, which are, in effect, presidential statements.

The tweets that his advisers do not apparently have a problem with are those that contain these continued attacks on Robert Mueller, the special counsel. That is something that's been going on for months now. Seems to appeal to his base. And if you look at some of the numbers, has eaten into the credibility, or at least the approval ratings of the special counsel. So for those kinds of tweets, they're not advising him against it. But on the tweets on this Trump Tower meeting, they seem to be saying to the president that this only draws attention to this issue when better not to draw attention to it.

BLITZER: Good point. Jim, the president and his administration, they've changed stories multiple times now about that Trump Tower meeting. What do we know about what his son Donald Trump Jr. expected to get out of that meeting?

SCIUTTO: You're right. They've changed the story multiple times and been blatantly misleading multiple times. And they've had to withdraw from that, retreat from that when evidence to the contrary's gone public.

Let's go back to more than a year ago when the e-mails leading up to the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting were revealed. In that first e-mail on June 3 -- and I'll read you a quote from it. This is coming from Rob Goldstone, who was a British publicist who helped arrange the meeting. He wrote to Donald Trump Jr. describing the purpose of the meeting as follows: "This is obviously very high-level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government support for Mr. Trump."

So very clear expression there that the Russians, as far as the Trump campaign was concerned, were going to give dirt on Hillary Clinton. And also that phrasing there, that this is part of the Russian government's support for Trump.

Of course, we know a lot more about that now, based on what we've heard from the intelligence agencies' assessment of Russian interference.

How did Donald Trump Jr. respond to that offer? He wrote back with enthusiasm. He said, 'If it's what you say" -- and I'm quoting here -- "I love it, especially later in the summer." Of course, later that summer would be closer to election day.

That was June 3, 2016, a few days before this meeting. Three days later, he called a blocked number. We don't know who that number was, but we do know that one of the president's former advisers, Corey Lewandowski, has testified that the president himself has a blocked number, a private number. One issue of possible inquiry for the special counsel.

One final note in that chronology, Wolf. One day later -- this is on June 7 -- so two days before that Trump Tower meeting, President Trump teed up that he was going to have a major speech upcoming, seeming to tease the possibility of dirt on Hillary Clinton. Have a listen to what he said then.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week and we're going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you're going to find it very informative and very, very interesting.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[17:10:04] SCIUTTO: That speech did not happen, but when you look at that chronology of events there, they at least raise questions for the special counsel as he pieces together those e-mail communications, what happened in that meeting, what we know from witnesses in that meeting, several of whom have now testified under oath with the public statements by the president and others around that time. One reason why we know that this at least has been a line of inquiry for the special counsel, Wolf.

BLITZER: Good point. Jim Sciutto, thank you very much. Joining us now, Democratic Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode

Island. He's a member of the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committees.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D), RHODE ISLAND: My pleasure.

BLITZER: How significant is this admission now by the president for Robert Mueller's overall investigation?

CICILLINE: I think this is a very significant admission.

People should not lose sight of this very basic fact. This is the president of the United States admitting that his son, his son-in-law and his campaign manager met with Russian operatives in the hopes of getting dirt on Hillary Clinton. This is illegal. It is illegal for a foreign national to contribute to an election or to make an in-kind contribution to an election. It's a violation of federal law.

The president's statement that this is done all the time is false. It's done all the time in terms of opposition research by American citizens and by candidates who hire American companies to get opposition research. It is not at all acceptable to have a foreign adversary, an adversary of the United States, engaged in the collection of opposition research and sharing with the campaign. It's a violation of federal law. This is a serious admission by the president.

When you add to that his misstatements or lying about the purpose of the meeting, why it happened, it raises some real -- very serious questions about his knowledge of this meeting. Then you add to it Michael Cohen's expected testimony that Mr. Trump, the president knew about this. This is a very, very disturbing set of events.

BLITZER: The president and the team, as you know, they've been misleading on this meeting for months now. Why do you think he's finally admitting to the real purpose for the meeting after more than a year?

CICILLINE: Well, I mean, I think it's very clear that the president's concerned about this meeting, as he should be. I think he's concerned about his son's exposure. Donald Trump Jr. e-mailed with Rob Goldstein -- Goldstone who said, you know, "We have dirt on Hillary Clinton. This is part of the Russian government's effort to help Mr. Trump."

He said, "I love it." So there's a lot of evidence that Donald Trump Jr. knew what this meeting was about when he agreed to do it.

The fact that they ultimately didn't produce stuff -- I don't know whether that's true or not -- is irrelevant. This is a conspiracy to violate the campaign finance laws. He clearly had knowledge of it, based on the e-mails that he shared with the American people.

I think President Trump has right to be very concerned about his son's liability. Then you add to it the expected testimony of Michael Cohen that Donald Trump knew about this meeting and approved it, that is very, very concerning for the president, I'm sure.

BLITZER: Do you think the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., could be indicted?

CICILLINE: Well, I don't think there's any question, based on what we know, that he agreed to meet with a foreign national for purposes of getting dirt on a political opponent. That person was a representative or got that information from the Russian government as part of an effort to help Mr. Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton.

So I think there's enough evidence there, certainly, to present this information to a grand jury. Obviously, Mr. Mueller and the grand jury will make that determination.

But on its face, this is prima fascia evidence of a conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws and, with Mr. Trump Jr.'s admissions of knowing the purpose of this meeting, based on those e-mails, I think he definitely has liability.

BLITZER: Because the president said that meeting -- from the tweet over the weekend, "This was a meeting to get information on an opponent. Totally -- totally legal and done all the time in politics." What do you say to that?

CICILLINE: Yes. He's -- that's wrong. It is not totally legal. It's -- when it's a foreign government offering to do this, it's totally illegal, and it doesn't happen all the time. In fact, if any -- if it ever happens, what a candidate is expected to do is immediately contact the FBI and turn that information over.

But the idea of secretly meeting with a foreign adversary, an enemy of the United States, the Russians, for purposes of getting dirt on your political opponent, it's a violation of federal law. It's not done all the time. It ought to be of concern of everyone.

I mean, the problem is we've heard so much information about the Russian participation and certain parts of this campaign that we sort of sometimes lose sight of how monumental this revelation is. This is a presidential campaign agreeing to meet with someone who is a representative of the Russian government saying, "We have dirt on your opponent" and them saying, "I love it. And it would be best later in the summer."

This is unheard of in American politics. And it ought to be a concern to everyone, Democrat, Republican, independent alike.

Guess who gets to decide who's going to win American presidential elections? American citizens. We don't allow foreign adversaries, foreign nationals to meddle or interfere in our elections, and we all ought to be standing up against this.

[17:15:12] BLITZER: The former White House communications director, Hope Hicks, she traveled aboard Air Force One with the president this weekend as he was heading to another political rally, and she spoke with Robert Mueller's team earlier this year. Hicks is presumably a witness in the obstruction probe, given her role in crafting that misleading narrative around the Trump Tower meeting.

Does her presence on the campaign trail, Congressman, with the target, potential target of that probe, raise red flags?

CICILLINE: I think so. I mean, I think it's really inappropriate. Look, she's clearly a witness to a very important event. Not only did this meeting happen, but then there was a real effort to conceal the true purpose of the meeting, to issue a false statement that the president has now admitted was not true to try to give an alternate explanation for this secret meeting with the Russian operatives.

She's clearly an important witness to those events. You have to wonder what is she doing now on Air Force One, in this week in particular? Are they trying to shore up her story of events? Like, what's the purpose? I think it creates additional challenges for this administration. I think it would have been much better, had they kept her apart from the president. And you have to wonder kind of what she's doing there.

BLITZER: Congressman Cicilline, thanks so much for joining us.

CICILLINE: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: Up next, the breaking news. The president urged to stop tweeting about the 2016 meeting with the Russians after admitting the goal was to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. Did the president just get himself or his son, for that matter, in hot water?

And the government's key witness takes the stand in the trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. How damaging is the testimony by Manafort's long-time deputy?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:21:11] BLITZER: There's breaking news in the trial of the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. The prosecution's star witness, Manafort's one-time business partner Rick Gates, he began testifying against his former boss just a little while ago.

CNN's Kara Scannell is outside the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia.

So Kara, what is Gates telling the jury?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Gates took the stand about 4:15 p.m. here local time, and he told the jury that he committed several crimes with Paul Manafort.

He described that he had lied to Manafort's accountants. He had helped to create false tax returns. He had created fake loans, and he also listed the names of multiple shell companies, over a dozen, that he set up with Manafort and that they never disclosed to the IRS.

And each time the prosecutor asked him questions about this, Gates said he did it, quote, "at the direction of Mr. Manafort." So he's telling the jury that Manafort directed him to commit these crimes and admitting that he was a willing participant in them.

I mean, this all goes back to a relationship that started in 1995 when Gates was an intern at Manafort's company and he said he met him at the office Christmas party, Wolf.

BLITZER: Did Gates admit to other crimes, Kara?

SCANNELL: That's right. He did. He said that he had stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars from Paul Manafort by filing -- by filing fake expense reports, by overreporting his own income and lying to his own accountant. So he admitted to crimes that are not in the indictment that he was charged with and are not crimes that he has pled guilty to.

But this also goes directly to the point that Manafort's attorneys were making earlier today when they said that Gates had embezzled money from Manafort. So now we're hearing it from Gates now, saying that he did steal several hundred thousand dollars from Manafort by filing fake expense reports, Wolf.

BLITZER: Interesting. What do we know about the cooperation agreement between Gates and the Mueller team, the prosecution?

SCANNELL: Well, the prosecutors had him walk through this to admit to the jury that he had committed these crimes and he had pled guilty.

What he described was helping Manafort file those fake returns. He said it was part of a conspiracy involving multiple crimes including these shell companies that were never reported, income that was never reported. And he also said that he had lied to the FBI. And we know he pled guilty to this during a meeting that he had with them while they were investigating Paul Manafort.

So he admitted to this. And he also told the jury that, by lying to investigators, that he increased his sentence or potential sentence by a lot. And that's -- it was at that point that the government then shifted to have Gates admit to other crimes that were not included in this cooperation agreement so the jury would hear the full picture of what Gates was admitting to, Wolf.

BLITZER: That's really important. All right, Kara. Thanks very much. Clearly some major bombshell testimony on the part of Rick Gates. We'll see what happens next. We'll get back to you.

Also coming up, the president may have stirred up more trouble for himself and his son by admitting the purpose of that 2016 meeting over at Trump Tower was -- with the Russians was to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. And that leads the president's lawyers to urge him to stop tweeting about that Trump Tower meeting altogether.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [17:28:54] BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories right now, including word that President Trump's top advisers are urging him to stop tweeting about the 2016 meeting between a group of Russians and top officials of his presidential campaign, including his own son, Donald Trump Jr.

Let's discuss the implications with our political and legal experts.

And Joey Jackson, let me read the relevant part of the law as far as contributions are concerned. This is the U.S. Code on Contributions and Donations by Foreign Nationals. Quote, "It shall be unlawful for a foreign national, directly or indirectly, to make a contribution, or a donation of money, or other thing of value, or expressly or impliedly promise to make a contribution or donation in connection with any federal, state or local election."

It also says this: "It shall be unlawful for a person to solicit, accept or receive a contribution or donation, explained in subparagraph A or B of paragraph 1 for from a foreign national."

The key words of "other thing of value." What is your interpretation of that? Were any laws broken?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: You know, Wolf, you have your finger right on the pulse, so let's be clear about this. Any -- any violation of law turns on what the law is, but it also turns on the fact.

I think there is a very credible argument to be made that, yes, that this statute was violated. Why? You mentioned the law. It bears for me not to repeat it but to highlight critical things.

The essence of the statute is to have no foreign actor involved in the election at all. Be it federal, be it state, be it local. That's clear.

In addition to that, the law talks about being involved directly. Either you make the donation or, indirectly: a third party makes it. It goes further to the crux of what you mentioned.

Other thing of value. It does not have to be money. So what is the other thing of value here and remember, it's not just accepting it. It's soliciting it. Right? And so the reality is, is the other thing of value could be construed as information which would be detrimental to your opponent.

Now briefly to the facts. If we know the fact is that there was such a meeting, we now know that the meeting involved the Russians, we know that there was also lies that were told about the meeting.

And what's the relevance of a lie being told? When you tell a lie about what you're doing, it goes to what we lawyers call consciousness of guilt. That means if you're not doing anything wrong, we have nothing to lie about.

And so, why is it that you say -- and we heard earlier in the show about Trump says, "I'm making a major speech." A major speech about what? How were you to know that you would have information that would be relevant to the Clintons? The blocked phone calls that were made by Don Jr. to you. We know you have a blocked number.

So there's information that the president was very well aware of this. And then, of course, we have Cohen, who corroborates it. Right? Not that we're relying on his word, but there's corroboration.

So if you look at the facts as you lay them out, you know, as we discuss the facts, if you look at the law and you apply the two, I think it's a very credible argument that can be made that that statute was, indeed, violated and that a foreign power was involved in the elections with the knowledge of the parties involved here.

BLITZER: Yes. Because opposition research, that could be interpreted as --

JACKSON: Thing of value.

BLITZER: -- a thing of value.

JACKSON: Right.

BLITZER: Bianna, the -- Rob Goldstone, he was the intermediary, who set the stage for that meeting at Trump Tower between the Russians and the Trump campaign, including Donald Trump Jr.

In the e-mail just before the meeting, June 3, 2016, he write this is to Donald Trump Jr. "This is obviously very high-level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump, helped along by Aras and Emin," the two Russians who were involved all of this, representing, presumably, sources close to Putin and the Kremlin.

Donald Trump Jr. then writes back to Goldstone, quote, "If it's what you say, I love it. Especially later in the summer."

This was an early June. Later in the summer gets closer to November and the elections. Could that offer have been any more clear?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Look. Most people would say, no, it couldn't have been more clear.

And if you take Don Jr. at his word when he said initially, this was about Russian adoption, that in and of itself is problematic.

Why? Because it wasn't just about Russian adoptions. It was Russian adoptions that were enacted -- or the banning of adopting Russian children from the Magnitsky Act. This is a thorn in Vladimir Putin's side. Arguably, his No. 1 issue that he wants to have lifted.

So just the mere fact that the Magnitsky Act was brought up is alarming.

Having said that, we've been running around in circles for a year, trying to square this issue, while one person, no doubt, knew about what the truth was from day one, and that is Vladimir Putin.

I wouldn't be surprised if this meeting came up in the Helsinki meeting between President Trump and Vladimir Putin. And to say now that the president is finally admitting this puts a really big question mark as to whether or not any laws were broken, what laws and what legal issues his son may be facing going forward.

And also think about all of the people in the president's orbit, from his spokesperson to his attorneys, who vouch for him, whether or not they knew what the accurate information was. Now they know what the truth was. And nobody has resigned in protest, even though their reputations have really been put on the line there now.

BLITZER: You know, David Chalian, the president and his team, for a year they were consistently misleading the American public about that meeting in Trump Tower. All of a sudden now, the president is confirming bluntly what it was all about. He says there was no violation of the law but he's admitting finally what it was all about.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT AND EDITOR AT LARGE: He is. In more direct terms. He has talked about, a year ago, the notion of he took a meeting that anybody would take. This is what you do in campaigns. So he hasn't been just saying, "Oh, this is primarily about adoptions." They exposed that misleading statement pretty early on.

Don Jr. on FOX News also fully admitted a year ago that this was about opposition research.

[17:35:05] What I think is so important about the new tweet and this weekend's context is what Bianna was saying, which is that we have reporting now that Donald Trump is concerned that his son has real legal exposure in this matter and that that, to me, is what is so intriguing about why he's being so forceful in tweeting about this meeting now, in the context that he believes his son may have inadvertently violated the law.

BLITZER: David makes a good point, Rebecca, that in July of last year, the president said this. Let me play the clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think from a practical standpoint, most people would have taken that meeting. It's called opposition research or even research into your opponent. I've had many people -- I have been in politics for two years. But I've had many people call up, "Oh gee, we have information on this factor or this person or, frankly, Hillary." That's very standard in politics.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So he's been laying the groundwork for about a year for this notion that there's nothing wrong with taking opposition research. Although if you take it from a foreigner, especially from a government like Russia, that could be seen as an in-kind campaign contribution and a violation of the law.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right, in spite of what the president has said publicly, Wolf, that this is a nothing burger, so to speak. Clearly, he saw where this was going. He saw that this was going to be not only a political liability potentially, also potentially a legal liability, either for him or folks in his campaign. And so he was trying to lay the groundwork with the public, with his supporters, to try to lessen the blow when all of the facts came out, as they are, as they already have to an extent.

And he has done a good job from a political perspective of bringing his supporters along with him, of getting them to believe his side of the story. He tweets in all caps, "There was no collision."

Well, in this case, Donald Trump Jr. was soliciting Russians for information about Hillary Clinton that could be damaging to her campaign. That seems a lot like an intent to collude.

But many of Donald Trump's supporters don't see that, don't believe that, because this whole time he has waged a very effective public campaign to try to bring them along with him.

BLITZER: yes. He said flatly, "If it's what you say, I love it. Especially later in the summer." That's Donald Trump Jr. speaking to Goldstone, texting with Goldstone on this meeting.

Everybody, stand by. We're getting some new details right now about Senator Rand Paul's visit to Moscow where he invited Russian lawmakers to come up to Capitol Hill.

Also, were three journalists killed because they got in a fight with robbers or because one of Vladimir Putin's allies wanted to stop their investigation?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:42:22] BLITZER: While President Trump takes bipartisan heat at home for not taking a tougher stance on Russia, Republican Senator Rand Paul, he's in Moscow. He's reaching out to the Russians directly.

Following a visit earlier this summer by other Republicans, Paul has invited Russian lawmakers to come here to Washington.

Let's go live to our senior international correspondent, Fred Pleitgen. He's in Moscow for us.

Fred, you had a chance and asked Senator Paul about Russia's attack on the 2016 presidential election here in the United States. What did he say?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it was interesting, Wolf. We had access to the beginning of the meeting that he had with Russian lawmakers talking about wanting dialogue and engagement with Russia. So I asked him whether or not he was also going to talk about and talked about election meddling with them. He sort of deflected the answer. Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PLEITGEN: Senator, did you speak about election interference, as well? Did that come up?

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: We had general discussions about a lot of issues and, basically, we've decided that right now. what we're trying to do is have dialogue. And I don't think we solve issues other than -- see, our biggest issue right now is no dialogue. It isn't -- the issues at hand; the issue is we can't even have discussion of issues, because we have no dialogue.

So we're not going to get into any of the differences other than we're trying to agree to have dialogue.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PLEITGEN: So there you hear Senator Rand Paul. It was interesting, because the Russians, for their part, said that there would be no meddling in the midterms in 2018.

It was interesting, because one of those who was present was Sergey Kislyak, the former Russian ambassador to the United States. He is actually a senator now in Russia and also responsible for foreign relations. He had a chat with Senator Rand Paul before the meeting took place and afterwards, as well, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's interesting. Senator Paul, as you know, he's defended the president's sort of cozy relationship with Putin, suggesting that Russia may not necessarily be an adversary. What was his message? Rand Paul's message today on the scene. You were there.

PLEITGEN: Yes. You know, it was interesting, because the Russians are very happy with Rand Paul's visit. There's a part of the trip that he has here that we didn't have full access to, but according Ria Novosti, that's the official Russian news agency, he said that there was, quote, "sanctions hysteria" in the United States.

I want to read you another quote, as well, where he's saying -- this is also according to Rio Novosti. "'Trump's hands are tied,' he says, 'behind his back. He can't advocate for greater cooperation between our countries because all this will look like, Oh, you love Russia. I'm in favor of a relationship. I'm not here to justify my behavior or anyone else's.'"

So there you have him really saying a lot of things that the Russians certainly were quite happy to hear. In fact, if you look at Russian state-run television, they seem to be quite happy about this visit.

One of the things he was also apparently asked about, Wolf, and this seemed a bit curious to us. Apparently, there were some Russian lawmakers who asked him whether or not he could ask for Maria Butina, of course, the Russian gun lobbyist who has since been accused of being a spy for the Russians in the U.S., whether she could be released and sent back to Russia, or whether he could help with that. It's unclear if any sort of arrangements are being made there.

Senator Rand Paul's visit actually continues tomorrow, as well. He says, so far, it's going fairly successfully, Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. Not that long ago, there were only two U.S. senators who voted against legislation to increase sanctions against Russia -- I think the vote was 96 to two or 97 to two -- and Rand Paul was one of the two. Bernie Sanders was the other one who voted against intensifying increasing sanctions against Russia.

Fred Pleitgen in Moscow for us. Thank you very much.

Coming up, are the deaths of three journalists really the result of a fight with robbers? Tonight, there are hints the killings could be linked to an investigation involving a close ally of Vladimir Putin.

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[17:50:50] BLITZER: Tonight, there are disturbing questions about the killings of three journalists. They reportedly were investigating a secretive paramilitary organization connected to a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

CNN's Brian Todd has been his working sources for us.

Brian, what are you hearing?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this shadowy security firm called Wagner is like the Russian equivalent of Blackwater. The Kremlin does not acknowledge that the group is operating in the Central African Republic, the country where the journalists were killed.

But the fact that these three men were Russian and were digging around on Wagner's shadowy maneuvers in that country is raising concerns over whether Vladimir Putin has, again, targeted journalists.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Disturbing questions tonight about the murders of three Russian journalists.

Alexander Rastorguev, Kirill Radchenko, and Orkhan Djemal were in the war-torn Central African Republic when their vehicle was ambushed. CNN has learned the three men were investigating the activities of a shadowy Russian private military firm called Wagner.

SARAH MENDELSON, FORMER UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COUNCIL: The Kremlin doesn't seem to want any information about Wagner known, right? They don't want any information about what Wagner has done in eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin doesn't want any discussion of the casualties in Syria.

TODD (voice-over): Earlier this year, dozens of contractors working for Wagner were killed in U.S. airstrikes in Syria when Syrian rebels they were helping assaulted an oil facility held by U.S. backed rebels.

Putin's government has never acknowledged that Wagner paramilitaries were in Syria and isn't admitting their presence in the Central African Republic. The Kremlin is saying only that Russian military and civilian, quote, instructors are there to train that country's military.

The head of Wagner has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for helping pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. He is closely tied to an oligarch named Yevgeny Prigozhin who has strong connections with Putin. Prigozhin was indicted this year by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for funding a group accused of meddling in the 2016 election.

RUSLAN LEVIEV, RUSSIAN ACTIVIST (through translator): The group of companies controlled by Prigozhin includes many well known to U.S. structures. One of the most famous projects is the troll factory that specialized in propaganda and informational war.

TODD (voice-over): Prigozhin has denied any links to the Wagner paramilitaries, and Putin has always denied targeting journalists. But this isn't the first time a Russian journalist investigating Wagner has died under mysterious circumstances.

Maxim Borodin who had broken a story about Wagner's activities in Syria was killed when he reportedly fell from his fifth-floor apartment in April. At the time, Russian officials said they didn't suspect foul play.

Tonight, human rights observers caution the Central African Republic has been racked with so much chaos and violence that it's possible the three Russian journalists were targeted more randomly.

MENDELSON: It's a dangerous place to be and it could have been set up as a robbery. It could have been a robbery that went bad and they were killed.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Tonight, the Kremlin is strongly suggesting it had nothing to do with the deaths of those three journalists. The Russian Foreign Ministry is saying Russia's embassy in the Central African Republic didn't even know they were in the country.

The Foreign Ministry says the journalists ignored warnings about venturing out of zones controlled by law enforcement there. Russian officials say they're working with local law enforcement officials in the Central African Republic to investigate those murders, Wolf.

BLITZER: What are you hearing, Brian, about why Russian paramilitaries, even their regular military, are in that country in the first place?

TODD: Wolf, Putin, by all accounts, has a close relationship with the President of the Central African Republic. There are reports that those Russian paramilitaries from Wagner are part of that President's bodyguard unit. We have information that a Russian is actually his national security adviser.

But a lot of this is about resources in that country. There are a lot of gold and diamond mines in the Central African Republic, and the Russians are reportedly involved in securing some of them, possibly taking some of the profits from them as well.

BLITZER: Working the story for us, Brian Todd. Thank you very much.

Coming up, breaking news. President Trump's legal team urges him to stop tweeting about the Trump Tower meeting with Russians after a stunning admission via Twitter that the purpose of that meeting was to get dirt on Hillary Clinton.

[17:54:58] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Urged to stop. President Trump pressed to stop tweeting about the Trump Tower meeting with Russians in 2016 after he tweeted it was to get dirt on Hillary Clinton, not to discuss adoptions as he and Donald Trump, Jr. first claimed. How concerned is the President about his son's potential legal exposure?

Preparing to respond. The President's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, tells CNN the Trump legal team is getting ready to answer Robert Mueller about a possible interview with the President. Will they seek concessions from the Special Counsel?

[18:00:03] Face-to-face. Paul Manafort's former right-hand man Rick Gates takes the stand as the star witness for the prosecution against the former Trump campaign chairman. How damning will his testimony be?